Navigating customer relationships: A small business guide

Marina Pullin, as the Managing Director of The Jungal and Founder of MCBI, has made significant strides in the professional world. 

The Jungal, an award-winning platform, connects clients with Australia’s top 1000 verified freelancing professionals using innovative technology and data analysis. MCBI, equally acclaimed, is a consulting firm that enhances the skills of business analysts. With over 20 years in management consulting, Marina has driven positive change across various sectors through smart technology and people management. 

Marina is also a not-for-profit director for Orana Australia Limited, a dynamic public speaker, and a university lecturer.

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Marina Pullin on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Marina Pullin, Managing Director of The Jungal and Founder of MCBI.

I’ve always believed your people make or break businesses. But I don’t think it’s just about keeping these people happy. I think, like a sports team, if you get the right people in the right spot, you will thrive. I’ve found that if you have people who are great at what they do, they can be trusted and that is what clients gravitate towards. As a business owner, your priority should be in strengthening these relationships you have with customers. Here’s how I’ve learnt to navigate customer relationships effectively, so you can build trust and, in turn, build a lasting business.

Know the problem you solve

My old boss, Slim, an experienced and savvy bartender, used to tell me, “We’re solving the problem of people wanting a beer on a Friday night, and we’re going to do it better than anyone else.” He told it plain and simple to everyone who worked there. It ended up being something we all believed in and we worked together to make happen.

To become a successful business owner, like Slim, the first thing you need is a belief in what you’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the intricacies of running a business like fancy marketing or sales tactics. But, while you’re doing so, are you able to answer the fundamental question: What problem are you solving for your customer?

Often, when I ask business owners this, they either struggle to answer or give some sort of rehearsed positioning statement they conjured at a brand seminar. That’s great, but it’s not showing me you really believe in what you’re doing. To build a lasting business, you need a clear understanding of, and belief in, the problem you solve. This is the foundation of a lasting business. Everything else will then fall into place. 

Asking yourself, “What problem am I solving for my customer?” can give surprising clarity and is the first step to a steady path in your business journey.

Establishing trust with your customers by being on time

Years ago, when I was studying, I did a case study on a plumbing business. He understood there were people out there who were frustrated that plumbers never showed up on time. So he built his business around solving this one problem. He became a reliable plumber who turned up at the time they promised.

Through honing in on this one problem and providing a practical solution, he built a lucrative business. He didn’t need fancy discounts or crazy sales pitches. He just said he’d come at this time and he followed through with it.

Trust is so important in any successful customer relationship. In my experience, building trust as a business is relatively easy, but it’s even easier to break. You have to build and maintain trust through being consistent and reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, then you do it.

 You then have to weave that reliability into the DNA of your business and team. That’s how you’ll get positive word-of-mouth for your business. And word-of-mouth is a powerful thing.

The power of transparency and reliability

Another major part of customer relationships and trust is transparency. There’s an art to handling problems without causing customers to lose confidence in you. Essentially, you have to set realistic expectations right from the start.

What makes a business unreliable is the expectation breakdown between what the client thinks you will do and what you think you can do. It’s a bit like online dating, isn’t it? All these people put filters on their profiles and you expect something pretty great, but you show up to the date and it’s not at all what you expected! You think, they should have been more honest and transparent so I could have been more prepared. The same goes with small businesses; don’t catfish your clients! Many businesses tell you they can do everything when they can’t and it just disappoints the customer even more. What’s the point of lying?

At the same time, however, you should not overshare with your clients to the point they lose confidence in you.

Everyone has a bad day.

Everyone makes a mistake.

God, it happens all the time. But you have to be a bit street-smart as to how you position that with clients. You don’t want to overshare your personal life and use it as an excuse for your poor, unreliable service. This diminishes the trust even further. Your clients are going to think, sure, you’re having a bad day, but my plumbing is still not fixed properly. In their head, they would never refer you to their contacts.

Saying no while maintaining relationships

As your business evolves, you need to learn when to say yes or no to client demands or suggestions. Early in your business journey, you may not be saying no as often because it’s important to learn from every customer interaction, even the difficult ones.

Sometimes difficult clients are the best ones to give you feedback on the weaknesses in your business. So, before you say no, you need to ground yourself. Ask yourself, did you actually do something wrong? Can you actually do better? That’s where the growth and the learning comes from.

However, as your business matures, knowing when to say no becomes just as important as knowing when to say yes. Now you have to ask yourself why you want to say no to this client’s demands or suggestions. Are you rejecting a client simply because they are difficult, or is there a legitimate concern about their behaviour or demands? The concept of trust should go both ways.

Many business leaders know which clients and individuals are not trustworthy.

It’s important to recognise red flags like when a client is always delaying payments, showing up late to meetings, or generally causing disruption with an indifference towards your business. All of this will test your trust in your clients and cause problems for your business operations.

When these situations happen, I adopt one of two approaches. Firstly, I might tighten control over project management so that if things do go pear-shaped, you can at least get out quickly and easily.

Alternatively, if I feel confident in our offerings but sense that the client is not a good fit, I use tactful communication strategies. There’s diplomatic language you can use to get out of arrangements amicably. I’m not a believer in lying or misleading people with false statements.

I won’t say I’m too busy for a client when, in reality, I just don’t like them. Instead, I’ll say things like our services are focused on this area, but I can refer you to someone more suited to their needs. And then I do a clean handover and professional follow-up to ensure they’ve been cared for.

Be proud of what you’ve built

This concept of self-confidence is often overlooked by small business owners.

They are hustling to make their business better and better, but many don’t stop to appreciate what they’ve already got. Often, being proud and confident in yourself can be a business advantage and creates momentum.

Turn off the internet, look back at everything you’ve achieved so far, and use this as evidence for future endeavours.

There’s one bakery I go to loyally because they’ve got the best sausage rolls. It’s a humble little bakery. It’s not fancy at all, but it’s a solid, trustworthy and consistent business. That’s because they’re proud of what they’ve built and they believe in it so they don’t buy into fancy, glossy marketing – they just focus on a good solid service.

I think there are a lot of people out there challenging whether they should be proud of their business and I don’t understand that. If you’re a hairdresser and you have just one customer coming in the door, you should be proud of that and just do the best you can.

Keep building off what you already have, instead of comparing yourself to other people and getting disillusioned and watching your energy go down the drain. I think nothing’s more motivating than when people let go of that self-doubt and heavy expectations.

Essentially, knowing the problem you’re solving and working every day to be a trustworthy, reliable business to solve that problem is key to entrepreneurial success. The essence of good business isn’t just about transactions; it’s about building relationships based on trust that you’re going to help. Keep your focus clear, and the rest will fall into place.

As you continue your journey as a business owner, remember to find what problem you’re solving, build trust through consistency, and never be afraid to stand by your values.